I’ve recently been wondering whether or not I can be called a feminist. When I began to think about this, I quickly found that the word “feminism” is a rather complicated word. It is one of those words that, depending on who is speaking and how, can mean a wide variety of different things. Kind of like “evangelical” or “liberal.”
Sometimes I get the impression that all I need in order to be a feminist is a feeling of solidarity with women. Just voice my support that I desire women to be leaders in our communities, and that they ought to have all the rights anyone else has, and ought to be protected as a citizen, just like everyone else. Or maybe, to be a feminist, I just need to look out for the women in my workplace, and encourage them to speak their opinion. If that’s all there is to it, then of course! Of course that’s what I want to do and be.
But other times, it seems like it isn’t that simple. Other times it feels as if the word comes with a host of ideas. That a stay-at-home mom is probably not fulfilled. That those who are not actively working for the feminist cause are working against it. That, like Foucault thinks, power struggle is at the core of human relationships (implied in that sort-of-true but wildly unhealthy motto, “The personal is political”). That most everything about traditional womanhood and the tendencies of the feminine mind has its origin in a social construct, and specifically a male construct, (and specifically a male construct in the sense of Beauvoir’s existentialist conception of Self and Other), one that is in place to ensure that men maintain power over women. That I’m not allowed to mention or grapple with difficult passages of my own sacred text—that if it comes down to it, and Paul teaches something concrete about gender roles, you’d better leave your Bible behind when going to the Women’s March.
Well, these things weigh heavier upon me.
Still, I often feel very silly to be hesitant about adopting the label “feminist,” because a lot of the people I interact with don’t really care about Wittig or Butler or those types of thinkers. To them, feminism just means believing that women have disadvantage in this life, and then working to change that. Believing that women do not have equal opportunity, and working to pave the way for access to that opportunity. And that’s great!
But then, I remember that the people defining the agenda for the movement, defining the ideas, spreading the information—they do care about Wittig and Butler, and they think those thinkers got it exactly right. But I think most second and third wave feminist philosophers were just plain wrong about foundational pillars of their systems.
So then I’m stuck feeling like an idiot, because my friend I’m talking to doesn’t understand why I wouldn’t just say I’m a feminist and be done with it, and I start wondering if I am just an old stodgy conservative who doesn’t even understand that the reason he is grumpy about feminism is because he senses that he is losing power. And then, finally, and most importantly, now I am hung up on what it all means, instead of actually encouraging my females friends to run for office because I think they would make fantastic representatives to Congress.
So now a new question comes to mind. This confusion/ambiguity over what feminism means—where does it come from in the first place? It seems to me that the equivocation is almost certainly rooted in the movement’s history. Feminism started out in the historical tradition of much of political philosophy: natural rights. The suffragists argued that women are human, humans have a natural right to be represented in government, and therefore women must have the vote. Then Beauvoir came in, and introduced existentialism to feminism, and that changed everything. Among other things, for instance, it began the theory of constructed rather than inherent gender. And then Wittig and the Combahee River Collective wove Marxism and identity politics into the tradition, fleshed out their conception of the term “Patriarchy,” and practiced extensive class consciousness raising. Then Crenshaw arrived, and pointed out in clearer terms the “Interlocking systems of oppression” that the Collective discussed. Finally, Butler showed up and asked the question, “What does it even mean to be a woman?” and detailed the answer of performativity, which is really just an extension and reworking of Beauvoir. As this answer of performativity developed, it then pushed feminism firmly into the realm of queer theory.
From this (ultra-brief and lacking) history, what I see is some feminists who have followed that whole line and now are the products of Butler and beyond, but other feminists who have decided to stay way back at the beginning, and have a more traditional/historical view of political philosophy and gender generally.
What lessons can be learned here? Perhaps these: in considering feminism, I think it is valuable for all of us to both 1) think through where on that path we are, and 2) try and be clear about where we are when in discussion with others. And a good way I think we can do both of those things is by considering individual issues. Instead of contemplating the meaning of the word “Feminism,” I think a better use of our time is considering how biology and social construction might interact. Perhaps get educated by reading both Bem and Paglia, two stout feminists who disagree profoundly. Or, look into the reasons that there are so few Senators who are women, like Jennifer Lawless did. Stuff like that. I think focusing on the individual issues can help us think through and discuss these complicated things, and can maybe actually move us forward.
Another nice benefit of focusing on individual issues is that it makes it more difficult to develop an Us vs. Them mentality, because when discussing individual stances on specific topics, you can’t help but notice that it is very rare that two people agree on every issue. There is no Us vs. Them, it is just all of us trying to figure out this crazy world. Another way of saying this is that it tends towards a less reductionistic treatment of the issues. Considering individual issues allows a person to not be a monolith of beliefs that ascribe to what is perceived as the correct way of thinking, but rather a complex and surprising set of tensions based on a smattering of random life experiences had, articles read, impactful conversations participated in, etc., because that is really how most of our beliefs come about anyway.
So, in the spirit of discussing the issues, here is a tiny, tiny sample of some fundamental statements that can perhaps illustrate what I mean.
I believe that women ought to be able to vote and hold property, and have equal rights in all things legal, therefore I am a feminist. But, I do not believe that “men” and “women” are essentially classes (in the Marxist sense) kept in place through the practice of heterosexuality and that the only path forward for the liberation of those named “women” is political/sexual class warfare enacted through lesbianism, therefore I am not a feminist.
I believe in the crazy idea that women are human. But, it seems to me that men and women are not identical beings and in many ways should not be thought of as identical.
I believe that America can no longer rightly be labeled a patriarchy, as I understand that term. But, I believe that there is much misogyny and gender prejudice and good ole boys clubs in America, and that in living as a man, I have privileges and advantages that my wife does not have, both through opportunities that she does not have and a lack of negative experiences that she does have.
I believe that in a very concrete and important way, and indeed in many ways, Karl Marx was definitively and provably wrong about what he said about the world. But, I will state openly and without hesitation that Kimberlé Crenshaw’s explanation of intersectionality is quite insightful and important to understanding discrimination.
The concept of enforced affirmative action causes me great cognitive dissonance. But, I thoroughly support the #MeToo movement and view it as something long, long overdue, and indeed, can hardly imagine why anyone would not shout its goodness from the rooftops.
I have no issue saying that history matters and has an effect on the present, and that historically, women have been the subject of gross and unjustifiable discrimination, injustice, and oppression. But, I tend to be persuaded by the idea that feminism could not have been possible without the industrial revolution providing women leisure time and job opportunities.
I believe that the word “empowerment” carries a very real and concrete and important meaning, and we ought to collectively work for the empowerment of women. But, I believe that the word “feminism” is sometimes used more as a political test to determine who is in and who is out than as a descriptor of a stance on an issue.
So am I a feminist? I guess the answer is, it depends.